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Shea Cox
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Preventing Heat Stroke
“Sunny and 70” can mean “sunny and deadly”
A sunny day can be tough on pups.

We have been experiencing idyllic temperatures in Berkeley, Calif., these past couple of weeks—mostly sunny days and mid-70s bliss. Perfect weather for a fun-filled outing with our pets, right? For the most part, the answer is “yes” but these are the kind of days where we have to be extra cautious with our pets. At the veterinary hospital where I practice, I have had three dogs die from heat stoke in the past three weeks. These were not dogs left in unattended cars or as the result of negligent owners. They were really the result of not realizing that “sunny and 70” can mean “sunny and deadly.”

Two of the deaths were Bulldogs, one who played ball for a short 20 minutes outside and the other who went on his “normal daily walk.” The other loss was a Golden Retriever; the owner let him play at the park for an hour with the neighborhood kids, who always loved to spend time with him, such heartbreaking loss for everyone involved.

Many people are unaware of how dogs process heat and how easily they can succumb to heat stroke. Dogs cannot tolerate high temperatures as well as humans because they depend upon rapid breathing (panting) to exchange their warm body air for cooler environmental air. Therefore, when the air temperature is close to body temperature, cooling by rapid breathing is no longer an efficient process, and dogs can succumb to heat stroke in a relatively short time period.

Heatstroke can occur in many conditions that include:

  • Leaving your pet in the car with “the windows cracked.” We all still see this despite the warnings. Here’s the math: When left in a car on a relatively cool 75-degree day, the temperature within a vehicle can increase an average of 40 degrees Fahrenheit within one hour. That equates to 115 degrees in the car, whether the windows are “cracked” or not.
  • When an animal is left outdoors in hot, humid conditions without adequate shade.
  • When an animal is exercised in hot or humid weather: I have treated pets that have developed heat stroke while out for a routine walk, such as the Bulldog. One contributing factor is the fact that short-legged dogs are closer to the pavement, which radiates additional heat, contributing to the development of heat stress or stroke.
  • Other predisposing factors that increase the risk of heat stroke include obesity and being a brachycephalic (short-nosed) breed such as a Pekingese, Pug, Lhasa Apso, Boston Terrier or Bulldog. These dogs suffer from ineffectual panter syndrome, which basically means that their elongated palate in a short face interferes with their ability to pant and can be fatal.

Clinical signs of developing heat stroke:

Heat stroke is an emergency that requires immediate recognition and prompt treatment. A dog’s normal body temperature is 101.5 degrees plus or minus 1 degree Fahrenheit, and any time the body temperature is higher than 105 degrees, a truly life-threatening emergency exists. Initially the pet appears distressed, and will pant excessively and become restless. As the hyperthermia progresses, the pet may drool large amounts of saliva from the nose and/or mouth. The pet may become unsteady on his feet. You may notice the gums turning blue/purple or bright red, which is due to inadequate oxygen.

Severe hyperthermia is a disease that affects nearly every system in the body. Simply lowering the body temperature fails to address the potentially catastrophic events that often accompany this disorder. A pet suffering from hyperthermia should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible for appropriate care. There are many life-threatening after affects that happen to a pet’s body following an episode of heat stroke, and early treatment will give your pet the best chance for survival.

What to do:

  • Move your pet to shaded and cool environment, and direct a fan on him or her.
  • If possible, determine rectal temperature and record it.
  • Begin to cool the body by placing cool, wet towels over the back of the neck, in the armpits and in the groin region. You should also wet the earflaps and paws with cool water. Directing a fan on these wetted areas will help to speed evaporative cooling.
  • Transport to the closest veterinary facility immediately.

What NOT to do:

  • Do not use cold water or ice for cooling!
  • Do not overcool the pet; most pets with hyperthermia have body temperatures greater than 105 degrees, and a reasonable goal of cooling is to reduce your pet’s body temperature to between 102.5 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit while transporting him or her to the closest veterinary facility.
  • Do not attempt to force water into your pet’s mouth, but you may have fresh cool water ready to offer should your pet be alert and show an interest in drinking.
  • Do not leave your pet unattended for any length of time.
  • Rapidly cooling the pet is extremely important. While ice or cold water may seem logical, its use is not advised. Cooling of the innermost structures of the body will actually be delayed, as ice or cold water will cause superficial blood vessels to shrink (vasoconstrict), effectively forming an insulating layer of tissue to hold the heat inside. Tap water is more suitable for effective cooling.

What if I see a pet in distress?

California law now prohibits leaving pets unattended in a vehicle, but I still see this (“grrrrrr”) all of the time. If you do happen see a pet in distress, you can call the local animal control agency, police or 911 for assistance. Any peace officer, humane officer or animal control officer is authorized to take all steps necessary for the removal of an animal from a motor vehicle. I have also made a downloadable flyer for you to print and leave on car windshields if you notice a pet inside of a vehicle. I wanted to create way to educate others instead of just getting worried, upset and frustrated. I know it is just a small gesture, but if it can save one pet’s life, then I’ve done my job with it.

I hope this blog has offered both awareness and education and please feel free to leave questions or comments!

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Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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Submitted by Anonymous | September 1 2011 |

This is an excellent reminder--thank you. I was tossing a ball for my dog just a couple of times on a warm summer day when she collapsed and couldn't get up. Luckily I could get her to a puddle of a leaking water facet that happened to be in the shade and kept dribbling water over her. I don't know if it was heat stroke or not, but it was an awful experience and good warning that even warm (not hot) days can be dangerous.

Submitted by Richard H. | September 1 2011 |

I appreciate your efforts to raise awareness and educate people on this issue. I disagree, however, with leaving flyers on peoples windshields because they have left their pet in the car. Is it often unsafe to leave a pet in the car? Yes. And if you see a pet left in car in unsafe conditions or showing signs of distress then absolutely do something about it. But it is also possible to safely and responsibly leave a pet in a car. My dog struggles with seperation anxiety. It is often safer, and more comfortable for him, for me to take him in the car to run a couple of quick errands than it is for me leave him at home.

Submitted by Mike | September 1 2011 |

Great information to help keep our pets safe during the heat. Thank you!

Submitted by Shea Cox | September 3 2011 |

Thank you, Mike! Two days into the long holiday weekend and not a single case of heat stroke yet! Makes me so happy :)

Submitted by ROBERT MICHAEL | September 1 2011 |

I left my dog in my car while I ran some nearby errands.Someone called the cops. When I got back the officer was standing by with a big smile on his face - the motor was running and the air conditioner was running.

Submitted by Shea Cox | September 2 2011 |

:). I've shared in this experience. Luckily, the police are more understanding about "I was only gone for 10 minutes" than the parking meter people are :)

Submitted by Kimberly | September 1 2011 |

Thank you for your article. I always appreciate education on how we can better look out for our beloved four-legged friends.

I do believe, however, that there are responsible ways to take our companions with us for errands. For instance, our vehicle has a 'remote start' feature where we can exit, lock, and start the vehicle. Our dogs sit in the air-conditioned (or heated - depending on the season) car while we run into to get coffee in the mornings. Not to mention that we park in the shade on warm days. They love the adventure and we keep our eyes on them.

Unless I am mistaken, the law states that it is illegal to "Leave or confine an animal in any unattended motor vehicle under conditions that endanger the health or well-being of an animal due to heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, or lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal."

We take every precaution to protect our animals and still give them an adventurous life. I would be offended if someone left the downloadable flyer (the one linked in your article) on my car window. Not every dog left in an unattended vehicle is in danger. Ours are most certainly not. I would put my life on the line for my dogs and can attest that they are quite comfortable and happy.

Submitted by Shea Cox | September 2 2011 |

Kimberly-
Your points are very well taken. And you are not mistaken; it is not illegal to leave a pet unattended, but it does *become* illegal if the pets health becomes endangered from heat, cold, etc, which can happen relatively quickly. You can go from being legal to illegal if circumstances change.

But most importantly, this was not an article about "do not leave your pet in a car" but an article about the *many* ways heat stroke can happen, how to recognize the signs, and the first best steps to take while seeking veterinary care. As I mentioned, not one of the three deaths I saw in this short time were due to being left in cars- they were from other causes that people were just completely unaware of, and my intention is to change that.

I totally agree that there are many responsible ways to take our pets with us, and I am not against taking our pets along- my two dogs go with me everywhere, including short stays in the car. This article does not mean, in any way, that: leaving your pet in a car = you are a bad pet owner. Of course not! And I am 100% with you that "not every dog left unattended is in danger." But the reality is that some dogs are, and *this* is the situation I want to help prevent by increasing awareness. So, I am sorry if you took this article in a different context than was meant... You obviously take all the right, responsible, and common sense precautions.

And, as far as the flyer goes, it is meant to create awareness- not create offense... because honestly, not everyone realizes the danger and how quickly it can happen, so I personally would be more happy (than I would be offended) over the fact that someone was keeping a watch out for my babies, even if it was misplaced or an over reaction for my situation.

As a bit of an aside, one situation I remember in particular was a dog I treated while living in Colorado... he was left in a car with the air conditioner running... and he accidentally shut off the car. He didn't survive - a fluke and a heart-breaking accident.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts- I really enjoy the feedback and I truly hope this helps clear up some of my intentions :). I'm with you on the "putting my own life on the line for my dogs," my husband says I need to seek counseling for my attachment (and I think that's a good kind of crazy :). ~. Shea

Submitted by Hanna at Dog Pr... | September 2 2011 |

I first want to thank you for this great article and then tell you a little story of my own.

I heard someone yelling, “Come on, move it!” When I looked out the window I saw a middle aged man holding onto a leash that was attached to a dog that was reclining on my front lawn. The man kept coxing the dog to continue walking while the dog kept licking at his paws.

Since this went on for a good 4 or 5 minutes, I felt compelled to step out into the 105 degree weather. The man was perspiring profusely and the dog was whimpering and panting rapidly. I squatted to pat it and saw that his paws were blistered. Being forced to walk on the hot pavement burned his paws!

When will people learn to consider their pets’ welfare?

Submitted by Shea Cox | September 2 2011 |

Hanna- thank you for your feed back and I am glad you enjoyed the article... and thank you for telling your story- I think it sometimes helps the heart to share; I know I do a lot of debriefing myself when I get home :). ~ Shea

Submitted by Zanna | September 2 2011 |

Cooling the pads is another way to cool a dog down if you don't have A/C available to you (like out on the trail, or wherever) by allowing the dog to stand one or two feet in cool (not cold) water to help lower their body temp. I didn't see this suggestion in the above article, and it's a solution that's always worked very well for me and my dogs. It's very similar to cooling a person's hands or feet when they are overheated and it works wonders.

Submitted by Shea Cox | September 3 2011 |

Thanks for the comment, Zanna! The suggestion is mentioned ("You should also wet the earflaps and paws with cool water"), but not in your exact words- so thanks for posting this! It often helps to hear or say things in a different way. The paws and ears have many blood vessels at the surface, which helps with rapid cooling. Happy (and safe! :) hiking!

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